Football officials’ rating improves

By Roscoe Nance
Updated: December 26, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. — So, you think President George W. Bush’s job approval rating — less than 30 percent in most polls — is bad?

Dubya’s rating would make him the most popular guy on the block in comparison to what Black college football fans think of game officials, who for years have been called incompetent, cheaters and much worse.

However, coaches, athletic administrators and longtime observers of Black college football say officiating among HBCUs has improved immeasurably.

“It has improved by leaps and bounds,” says ESPNU college football analyst Jay Walker, who was an All-American quarterback at Howard University in the mid-1990s. “Sometimes we give officials hard times, but there has been a concerted effort by the conferences to improve.”

Better calls

Walker says the organizational structure and credibility of HBCU officials are two areas of significant improvement. He also says officials are committed to their craft, and several have approached him following games wanting to know his opinion on a certain call that was made.

Willie Jeffries coached 29 years at South Carolina State, Howard and Wichita State and has won more MEAC games than anyone else. He says officiating is light years ahead of where it was when he retired in 2001.

“The mechanics are better,” Jeffries says. “The consistency of their calls is better. What they do, where they line up and what responsibility they have has been improved.”

More courteous

Jeffries says he has also noticed that officials are more courteous toward coaches.

“I’ve seen the time when they wouldn’t talk to you,” he says. “Now they are lot more cordial when coaches ask them questions.”

Mississippi Valley State coach Willie Totten says being more courteous is part of officials’ improved overall professionalism.

“I had officials in the past that had no professionalism,” Totten says. “Everybody now is out there doing their job. Guys are more in tune.”

On the same page

ESPNU college football play-by-play announcer Charlie Neal, who has covered Black college football for more than 25 years, says officiating has improved in part because game officials from Black colleges are now aligned with their counterparts from the major conferences. In some instances, game officials from black conferences also officiate in major conferences.

“Officiating supervisors are getting on the same page,” Neal says. “Years ago, everybody had their own idea. Every supervisor of officials had his own way of doing things. Now everybody is reading the same sheet of music. You’re finding more consistency. Everybody is calling the same game.”

The same play that’s holding in the Big Ten is now also holding in the MEAC, and the same play that’s an illegal block in the Big 12 is an illegal block in the SWAC.

“You’ve got to do it,” SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp says of aligning with major conferences’ officiating staffs. “You can’t focus on your league and not get help.”

In better shape

Sharp says officials’ conditioning, giving them feedback on their performances and ensuring their mechanics are up to par are other reasons officiating in SWAC, once considered among the worst in college football, has made great strides.

“My first two years in the conference, officials were severely out of shape,” says Sharp, who has been with SWAC five years, the last two as commissioner. “If you’re not in shape, you can’t get in position to make calls.”

The conference has instituted a running program for officials. They are required to run a half-mile in a prescribed amount time based on their officiating position.

“But to be in shape physically and not know the mechanics defeats the purpose. They have to know rules. At every snap, they know where they’re supposed to be,” Sharp says.

Better recruiting

Officials are evaluated each game and given feedback on their performances on a weekly basis. “They’re improving because we’re telling them where they need to make improvement,” says Sharp.

In the MEAC, Commissioner Dennis Thomas says that in recent years, he has invested more time and effort in evaluating and selecting officials. He has also widened the conference’s pool of officiating candidates.

“You try to draw from a pool of candidates that are better officials,” Thomas says. “They might come from high school, Division II, Division III, junior colleges. It’s like recruiting athletes. You want to select from a pool of recruits that was better than the recruits the year before. When select from better recruiting classes, you have better talent. You hope that transfers to better team and a better record.”

Penalties tracked

Thomas says another aspect of improved officiating is grading officials’ performances and tracking penalties. The process involves evaluating if calls were right and evaluating if there were calls that should have been made but weren’t. Thomas’ goal is to have fewer missed calls and better-officiated games.

He says there has been no definitive pattern of an increase or decrease in missed calls.

“There is no question in my mind, we’ve gotten better,” Thomas says. “You have missed calls every year. You hope that it’s not a call at the end of game where it impacts the outcome.”

Turkey Day nightmare

When a missed call does impact the outcome of a game, there is no greater officiating nightmare. This year’s Turkey Day Classic between Tuskegee University and Alabama State is Exhibit A.

Tuskegee had its 26-game winning streak ended and lost its No. 1 ranking among HBCUs and shot its second consecutive Black College National championship when the go-ahead touchdown was disallowed with seconds remaining.

Judge Philip Harden ruled that Tuskegee receiver Jonathan Lessa was out of bounds when he caught a 16-yard touchdown on a third down play in the closing seconds. Tuskegee lost the game 17-13. However, SIAC interim commissioner George Mategakis ruled that Harden missed the call and permanently suspended Harden.

“We expect complete honesty from our officials at all times,” Mategakis said in a statement from the conference. “Anything else is simply unacceptable.”

Judgment call

Coach Stanley Connor and Coach Mike White of Albany State, both members of the SIAC, say the incident was unfortunate, but that can happen when officials have to make split-second decisions and don’t have instant replay as a safety net.

“We watch games every Saturday and see them make bad calls,” White says. “We see it in the NFL every Sunday (where there is instant replay).”

“That’s a judgment call,” Connor says. “On judgment calls, you’re going to miss some, and you’re going to get some. You can’t ever take the human element out of the game.”

However, conferences are taking steps to lessen the negative impact the human element has on games when it comes to officiating.

“The difference between a good game and bad game for an official can hinge on one play,” Sharp says.

Even Bush gets more leeway than that.